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Letters to the Editor

Letter: Some acts of expression can be harmful

Friday, October 16, 2015

To the Editor:

Something is missing from the attempt by Professors Ross Cheit, David Josephson, Glenn Loury, Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 and Luther Spoehr to identify what is missing from the statement about the current debate over free expression by President Christina Paxson P’19, Provost Richard Locke P’17 and Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06.

Nowhere in “Free expression matters” do its authors address the fact that some acts of expression — physical threats and intimidation, explicit support for oppressive and even genocidal organizations — can and do cause real psychological and physical harm. Eugenics and related discourses of racial superiority and inferiority aren’t just disgusting ideas or theories: They are sets of beliefs that have historically been — and are still today — intrinsic to regimes that destroy the lives of ethnic minorities.

There will necessarily be debate about whether a particular act of expression has such consequences. But the idea that “free expression” can never be harmful in ways that justify decisive and even militant actions to stop it is a liberal illusion.

William Keach

Professor of English

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  1. ………….my previous comment was taken down… idea why….all I said was that of course some speech was harmful if it advocated for violence or actually threatened anyone’s safety….but that didn’t apply in the case of the two censored articles. …………who do I contact to find out why my comment was not allowed….I literally said nothing controversial…………

    • The articles were not censored. Censorship pertains to a government (or some other administrative authority, but usually governments or organizations tied to the government) blocking certain ideas or words or works. For example: China’s government *censors* certain search results from Google. The FCC *censors* certain words from TV and radio at certain times. A publication making an editorial decision to rescind their own articles is not censorship.

      • It is if the reason is that the opinions are too controversial to be shared. They didn’t take it down cause it was poorly written (which it was) they took it down because they were bullied into by the student body who demanded the silencing of that position that didn’t like. The reason they took it was to censor.

        • A publication is not under any obligation to publish “controversial” views in the first place. I fail to see where any bullying happened, but sure. You’re entitled to that opinion. From what I’ve seen, most people want the BDH to hold themselves accountable for what they post, not take down pieces gone wrong and scramble for excuses.

  2. Physical threats, stalking, causing alarm, and intimidation. That is the extent of “speech being harmful”. If anything else does you “real psychological and physical harm”, then get yourself into therapy or grow a pair. Support or endorsements cannot be harmful. If they were, the population of this country would be wiped out by the harm- bomb that is Donald Trump supporters.

  3. Chris Manci says:

    First of all, let’s leave out the threats of physical violence and intimidation. Nobody reading these letters believes that’s what Cheit et al are defending or the administration is arguing against. That’s just a cheap piece of rhetoric by Mr. Keach.

    Keach has decided that certain expressions of ideas cause physical or psychological harm. The clear implication is that he doesn’t want those ideas expressed. Then he says there will “necessarily be debate” about which ideas are harmful. But you can’t have a debate without someone expressing those ideas — and other people listening and refuting them. You can’t have it both ways.

    The appalling reaction to Ray Kelly is a perfect example. He was not allowed to express ideas that some audience members decided were harmful. There was no debate. There was no chance for audience members who had prepared tough questions to ask them. Those questions might have shown the problems with Kelly’s ideas to people who hadn’t already made up their minds. But instead the protesters decided it was up to them to make up other people’s minds.

    If you want to influence other people’s views, speak up and explain your ideas. Don’t do it by suppressing other people’s expression of ideas. It is deeply troubling that a Brown English professor can’t see that.

  4. ken miller never said that says:

    I think that Professor Keach is entirely accurate in what he says in this letter. But I think that goes to further the point of Ken Miller et al. in the previous letter — yes, physical and psychological harm may be caused, but we do not live in a harm-free world, even within the Brown bubble. Harm will be caused everywhere, whether it is about race, sex, class, religion, sexual orientation, occupation, interest, or what have you. These kids need to learn to deal with it.

    • Agree. Free speech certainly has the capacity to cause harm, but censorship is likely to be far more harmful and dangerous.

  5. Saudii Garcia says:

    Oh wow these comments are super okay with speech causing psychological harm to students. To the point of using sexist language to make a point. I wonder of any of you suffer from the kind of structural inequality, the everyday conditions couched in years, nah, centuries of oppression that would make someone need psychological help. Just a thought before telling students to “grow a pair.”

    • I’ve got leprosy. There’s a “condition couched in years, nah, centuries of oppression that would make someone need psychological help” and I’m telling students to grow a pair.

    • Man with Axe says:

      Students (supposedly adults) who are protected from any and all psychological harm during their university years will not develop the emotional resilience they will need to survive in the wider world that won’t give a damn about their “oppression.”

  6. Free expression may cause harm. But the alternative – censorship – is far more dangerous.
    And without a firm, universal commitment to free expression (even when tangibly harmful), who becomes the arbiter of what speech deserves to be heard?
    Professor Keach, who do you suggest becomes the censor?

  7. Hey Chris Paxson does not mind the expression of lust. Brown students rape people all the time. Ask the Providence College people. So if she says otherwise, she is just being her affected self.

  8. Man with Axe says:

    Is the belief that it can be useful to consider humanity as being divided into groups that share certain characteristics itself a thought crime? If not, does it only become a thought crime when these groups are called “races?”

    If we agree that it’s okay to believe there are races, must we then believe that all races are identical in all physical, mental, behavioral, and emotional characteristics? Must we believe this in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary? And is it a thought crime to take notice of this evidence?

    Take the racial achievement gap between Asians, whites, Hispanics, and blacks in public schools. Is it a thought crime to notice this?

    Now, I don’t know what causes this gap. it does seem intractable. It would be a wonderful thing for our society if this gap could be erased.

    And here it the crucial question: If the evidence were to show that the performance gap is to a degree biologically determined, as well as to a degree culturally determined, would it be a thought crime to follow the evidence?

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